President Obama has ordered his new Homeland Security secretary to look for ways to “more humanely” enforce immigration laws, the White House said Thursday, in a move that Hispanic Democrats said could lead to fewer deportations.
Mr. Obama revealed the move in a meeting with Hispanic congressional leaders, the White House said in a statement recounting the meeting with Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, Ruben Hinojosa of Texas and Xavier Becerra of California.
A number of senior congressional Democrats have asked Mr. Obama to halt most deportations altogether, arguing that he has unilateral power to do so. They say he can expand his non-deportation policy from 2012, which granted tentative legal status to young adult illegal immigrants.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly said he doesn’t have that authority and the White House indicated no shift in his stance Thursday.
“He told the members that he has asked Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to do an inventory of the department’s current practices to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law,” the White House said in a summary of the meeting.
But Mr. Gutierrez, in a statement after the meeting, suggested there could be more wiggle room for the president to halt some deportations, saying Mr. Obama’s directive to Mr. Johnson includes looking at ways to “end the deportations that separate families.”
“It is clear that the pleas from the community got through to the President. The CHC will work with him to keep families together. The President clearly expressed the heartbreak he feels because of the devastating effect that deportations have on families.
The administration took some steps already, proposing in the new Homeland Security budget that fewer people be kept in detention while they are awaiting deportations. Instead, Mr. Obama has proposed alternatives to detention for immigrants who aren’t deemed a flight risk.
Republicans in Congress seemed skeptical of that change, telling Mr. Johnson in several hearings this week that they believe there’s a need for all 34,000 detention beds.
As for the broader debate over deportations, the president is trapped in the middle. Many Republicans argue he’s not conducting enough interior enforcement — and recent numbers bear that out, suggesting that deportations of immigrants from within the interior of the U.S. have dropped in his tenure.
Instead, the Obama administration putting more new illegal immigrants caught at the border into full deportation proceedings, which inflates the number of people removed when compared to the Bush administration.
Immigrant-rights advocates have seized on the higher number, arguing that Mr. Obama is on pace to have deported 2 million immigrants within the next month.
The Senate last year passed a bill granting most illegal immigrants legal status, but the House has balked, with Republicans who control the chamber saying they don’t trust Mr. Obama to enforce the laws they write. Thursday’s announcement is likely to feed those fears.
But in the absence of congressional action, immigrant-rights groups have demanded Mr. Obama act unilaterally to halt deportations. Thursday night, they said Mr. Obama’s move to ask for a review of policies wasn’t enough.